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Pennsylvania mayors charged in pay-to-play corruption case

By David DeKok

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The mayor of Allentown, the third largest city in Pennsylvania, is among the latest officials charged in a long-running federal corruption investigation, according to indictments unsealed on Wednesday.

Edwin Pawlowski, a Democrat who is running for a fourth term, was one of five people accused of bribery, extortion, wire fraud and other charges in two indictments that included a total of 73 counts.

Seven others have already pleaded guilty in the probe. Wednesday's new defendants include Vaughn Spencer, 70, a Democrat who previously served as the first black mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania.

"Pawlowski and Spencer essentially put a 'for sale' sign on City Hall and sold out to the highest bidder," said Louis Lappen, the acting U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, at a news conference on Wednesday.

At his own news conference, Pawlowski called that accusation "fiction" and vowed to keep running for reelection.

"I want to make it clear to everyone: I have done nothing wrong, nor have I ever accepted a dime beyond my salary," he said. "In no way, shape or form was City Hall ever up for sale."

Pawlowski, who has also run unsuccessfully for governor and U.S. Senate, is accused of accepting more than $150,000 in contributions to his various campaigns from vendors with the understanding they would receive city contracts in exchange.

The mayor sought to cover up the scheme by deleting emails, instructing his campaign aides to do the same and sweeping his office for listening devices installed by law enforcement, the indictment said.

Spencer, meanwhile, was charged with a similar scheme in which he allegedly directed a contract to a donor's engineering firm. He is also accused of agreeing to bribe the city council president in exchange for repealing campaign finance limits.

A lawyer for Spencer, Geoffrey Johnson, said he "intends to vigorously defend against these charges" but declined to comment further, saying he was still reviewing the indictment.

The separate schemes outlined in the two indictments included some of the same players. James Hickey, a business consultant, was named in both indictments, while Michael Fleck, who previously pleaded guilty, served as campaign manager for both mayors.

A lawyer for Hickey did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Charges against Pawlowski had been expected. Earlier this year, Allentown's former managing director pleaded guilty as part of the investigation and implicated Pawlowski in a $3 million bid-rigging scheme to benefit a campaign donor.

(Writing by Barbara Goldberg and Joseph Ax; Editing by G Crosse and Andrew Hay)